WASHINGTON — China is likely developing a long-range bomber capable of delivering nuclear weapons and a space-based early warning system it could use to more quickly respond to an attack, according to a new report from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
The development of the bomber, when combined with China's land-based nuclear weapons program and a deployed submarine with intercontinental ballistic missile technology, would give Beijing a “triad” of nuclear delivery systems similar to the U.S. and Russia, according to the report published Tuesday.
“China is building a robust, lethal force with capabilities spanning the air, maritime, space and information domains which will enable China to impose its will in the region,” the report's author, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, said in the introduction.
The report comes as President Donald Trump's administration focuses on the potential for “great power” conflict with countries like China and Russia as part of its national defense strategy. It also comes amid heightened trade tensions between Washington and Beijing, and continuing disputes about China's posture in the South China Sea.
Beijing's development of a nuclear-capable bomber would provide China with “its first credible nuclear triad of delivery systems dispersed across land, sea, and air — a posture considered since the Cold War to improve survivability and strategic deterrence,” according to the report.
Even without the bomber, China is progressing on its new Jin-class nuclear submarines which, armed with JL-2 ICBMs, are “poised to contribute to China's nuclear deterrent once they begin strategic patrols in the near future,” DIA said.
The DIA assessment released Tuesday underscores that China maintains a “no first-use” nuclear policy but adds that there is “some ambiguity, however, over the conditions under which China's NFU policy would apply.”
Despite a slew of disputes over Taiwan, the South China Sea and global trade, the review also says there is no indication in Chinese military strategic documents that Beijing views war with the U.S. as looming.
Moreover, while China's defense spending climbed an average of 10 percent per year from 2000 to 2016, total spending remains “significantly below” the U.S., the report said. Spending was about 1.3 percent of gross domestic product from 2014-2018, compared to more than 3 percent of GDP for the U.S. over the same period.
China is trying to strike a balance between expanding its capabilities and reach without “alarming the international community about China's rise or provoking the United States, its allies and partners, or others in the Asia-Pacific region into military conflict or an anti-China coalition,” the report adds.
Underlying China's concerns are its view that the U.S.-led security architecture in Asia seeks to constrain its rise and interfere with its sovereignty, particularly in a Taiwan conflict scenario and in the East and South China Seas, said DIA.
The DIA's observations will likely be used by proponents of the Pentagon's drive to modernize the U.S. aging nuclear weapons infrastructure over 30 years, an effort that, when operations and support costs are included, could total about $1 trillion.
The report also gives credence — albeit in hedged judgments — to claims that China is developing a robust capability to disable U.S. satellites, an undertaking some officials have used to justify higher spending to harden spacecraft and create a separate “Space Force” supported by Trump but questioned by many at the Pentagon.
Chinese military strategists “regard the ability to use space-based systems and deny them to adversaries as central to enabling modern” information warfare,” according to the report. “Space operations probably will form an integral component of other PLA campaigns,” it added, using an acronym for the People's Liberation Army.
As such, China “continues to develop a variety of counterspace capabilities designed to limit or prevent an adversary's use of space-based assets during crisis or conflict” in addition to the research and “possible development of satellite jammers and directed-energy weapons,” DIA said.
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